Although the NHL season has just started, it's not too early to start thinking about the 2022 NHL Draft. Right, Sabres and Coyotes fans?
Although there are many games to be played before any teams have to start seriously considering their draft lists, creating a baseline is an important exercise at this juncture. It serves as the foundation of what scouts will be looking for as the season progresses. Some players will dramatically improve their games, while others might level off or even fall off. How they entered the season will be important context for understanding the players they have become when the summer comes and it's time to make decisions.
The 2022 draft class appears to be a strong one. Certainly, it's miles better than the 2021 group. At the top of the list is a bonafide franchise-changing prospect. Following him is a group of eight all with a legitimate claim to second overall.
These lists always look different in the summer compared to at the start of the year, but preliminary lists should be considered particularly fragile this season. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many prospects saw limited or even no action last season.
My list is heavy with Americans and Swedes, which in part reflects two countries with strong groups of eligible players in this draft but also reflects their opportunities to prove themselves over the last 12 months that the Canadians have not. But these are imperfect times and we have to work with what we've got. There will likely be some risers, particularly from the OHL, who had their entire 2020-21 season canceled.
Overall, it's an exciting draft class that will offer 2022's most disappointing teams opportunities to fix their woes while also providing enough depth to make teams drafting later happy.
1. Shane Wright, Center, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)
Entering this season, there are two major inhibitors to Shane Wright's draft stock. First is that the 2022 draft class is incredibly strong. Second is that he played virtually zero hockey last season because of the OHL canceling its entire campaign.
It speaks volumes, then, that Wright is still the runaway favorite to get selected first overall in July. As a 15-year-old in the OHL, Wright produced 66 points in 58 games. To compare, Connor McDavid had 66 in 63 at the same age. Despite that, Wright will probably fall short of prime McDavid, in large part because he lacks an individual skill that grades as generational. Rather, he's merely excellent across the board. His best skill is his shooting ability, with a quick release that he disguises well, but he can equally play the role of playmaker. He's an above-average skater with high-end hockey sense who can make things happen away from the puck and defensively. He's also earned leadership roles beyond what one would expect for his age.
Any concerns about his missed 2020-21 OHL season were extinguished by his dominant performance at the U18 World Juniors in May, when he scored nine goals and tallied five assists in just five games for Canada. Barring a seismic plot twist, Wright will be the first overall pick in 2022 and should become a top-10 NHL center.
2. Matthew Savoie, Center, Winnipeg Ice (WHL)
With the bulk of the WHL season canceled, Matthew Savoie spent most of 2020-21 with the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL. Despite playing in an unfamiliar league with mediocre talent around him, he dominated, registering 21 goals and 17 assists in 34 games.
Savoie is a nightmare for opposing teams to defend against because he combines great hands with unpredictability. He's a creative stick-handler who will turn defenders inside out and drive toward the net. He can score in a number of ways. When watching his wrist shot, it appears as if he's barely putting any force behind it. Yet he still beats goaltenders from distance. He'll turn goaltenders into pretzels with moves above the crease on partial breakaways. He can catch and release or fire slap shots off the pass. Although he's on the smaller side (5'9", 175 pounds) and is not a top defensive forward, he shows good instincts in cutting off lanes and forcing turnovers with his stick.
Savoie has started the 2021-22 season with three goals and nine assists in seven games for the Winnipeg Ice. The fight for second overall is going to be a bloodbath, but Savoie has the edge out of the gate.
3. Ivan Miroshnichenko, Wing, Omskie Krylia (VHL)
Ivan Miroshnichenko is an incredibly imposing offensive winger. He carries the puck down the ice with the inertia of a freight train, often putting defenders on their heels, but he also has the dexterity to find pockets of space laterally when they do step up at the blue line. He has a lethal wrist shot with which he can beat goaltenders after receiving a pass but also, more prominently, while he's in motion. He loves skating into the middle lane and unleashing a devastating wrist shot that powers past goaltenders even from distance. He is a crafty stick-handler who can also score with finesse moves in tight or unlock the defense before finding a passing angle for a teammate in a scoring position.
The Russian winger also plays at full throttle. He attacks the puck on the forecheck, and he's not afraid to throw a crunching hit to force turnovers. Miroshnichenko has top-of-the-line skating and puck skills and a competitive nature that will serve him well in all aspects of the game. He projects as an All-Star scoring winger. After dominant performances at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and U18 World Championship, he enters this season with a lot of momentum, which he will have to maintain to challenge for second overall.
4. Danila Yurov, Wing, Metallurg Magnitogorsk (KHL)
One of the most fascinating subplots of the 2022 NHL draft will be the competition between Danila Yurov and Miroshnichenko to see which Russian winger is drafted first. Early into the season, the margins are razor-thin.
Yurov is also a talented offensive player with a diverse skill set. His shot is not as good as Miroshnichenko's, but he is a more clever stick-handler who routinely unsettles defenders with inside-out dekes. He also possesses better vision, with strong intuition regarding how plays will unfold and an ability to float passes into areas for teammates to skate on to before the unfolding play is apparent at first glance. Yurov is also fairly physically mature for his age at 6'1" and 180 pounds, and he works hard while on the defensive side of the puck. He's not overly physical. but he's tenacious in angling off the space of puck-carriers while on the forecheck and doesn't relent on the backcheck. He's always involved in the play.
One of Yurov's biggest obstacles this season will be opportunity. Metallurg are the top team in the KHL, and to start the season he's averaging fewer than eight minutes per game. He'll need and, frankly, deserves more opportunities to prove himself and impress scouts.
5. Simon Nemec, Right Defense, Nitra MHC (Tipos Extraliga)
Simon Nemec is an already physically mature 17-year-old with room to grow. Standing 6'1" and 192 pounds, Nemec has a long skating stride and gets around the ice effortlessly. When the puck is in the defensive zone, he can skate it out himself. He also has the legs to join transition rushes. Nemec is rarely wrong-footed defensively and closes gaps quickly.
A defenseman who physically matures early can often be fool's gold for NHL scouts. Those teenagers get by on physical tools at lower levels and never develop the cognitive abilities necessary to problem-solve at higher levels. This isn't a concern with Nemec. He plays an intelligent game, usually making good reads with the puck, and he has good instincts and timing defensively.
The only real question is whether his hands will limit him offensively. He has a good shot from the point and can find good passing opportunities, but he may not have the clever puck-handling abilities needed to be a high-end power-play quarterback. Regardless, with the high floor of top-four upside, Nemec is one of the safest bets in this draft.
6. Joakim Kemell, Right Wing, JYP (Liiga)
Many others published their initial 2022 mock drafts in the summer, with Joakim Kemell often landing somewhere in the mid-teens. He has since lit up Liiga to start the 2021-22 season, leading the entire league in goals (10) and points (15) through 13 games. He's consequently jumping up most people's lists.
So you will have to take my word for it that I had Kemell as a top-10 prospect entering the season. He is a skilled offensive winger who plays with a high motor at all moments. Whenever he gets the puck, he's not looking to waste any time holding up and evaluating options. He wants to immediately attack toward the net. When he has the puck at the perimeter, he'll carry it into the middle of the ice. In that sense, he qualifies as a north-south player, but he has the agility to skate around defenders and beat them laterally. He'll finish plays with his strong wrist shot.
Kemell is not going to be the best player on a good team—he lacks the poise to be a more complete offensive player—but he screams impactful top-six goal-scoring forward opposing teams hate defending against.
7. Brad Lambert, Center, JYP (Liiga)
How good is the 2022 draft class? Much of that will be determined by Brad Lambert. At this time a year ago, he was within striking distance of Shane Wright for first overall. He was a revelation in Finnish hockey, dominating despite playing above his age groups and making his professional debut at 16 during the 2019-20 season.
His stock took a minor hit last season, when he was very good but not great, producing 15 points in 46 Liiga games and holding his own at the World Junior Championship. He's struggled heavily to start the 2021-22 season, however, with just one point in nine games for JYP, and he has even been scratched from the lineup.
When Lambert holds the puck, he has a borderline elite ability to create offense. He's a fantastic skater and can turn on a dime. His vision is unmatched, and he'll either find or create passing lanes out of seemingly nothing. He'll quarterback the power play from the half-wall like Nicklas Backstrom. The problems arise when he doesn't have the puck. He doesn't put in the work to make himself useful and available in the offensive zone, and he's passive when it comes to winning back the puck or defending. When he's on his game, Lambert is the easily second-best player available in this draft. If his struggles continue, however, he's at risk of falling outside the top-10 at a minimum.
8. Conor Geekie, Center, Winnipeg Ice (WHL)
Simply put, Conor Geekie is a unicorn. There are few players around the world at any level who match his profile. He doesn't turn 18 until May, yet he already stands at 6'4" and 205 pounds. That would suggest a power forward profile, but that's not his game. Sure, he uses his size well, protecting the pucks around the perimeter and carrying to middle ice, and it's sometimes hilarious how defenders bounce off of him.
But Geekie is primarily a finesse player. He is a gifted stick-handler who manipulates defenders with ease. Despite his long reach, he is particularly capable of making plays with his hands tight to his body. Geekie displays poise on the puck, pushing the pace when needed but also taking his time when he has it. He scores by stick-handling his way into threatening positions around the net, but he's an even better playmaker.
How much Geekie can improve his skating is the pivotal question. It's not a major flaw in his skill set, as he grades out as roughly average for his size and, in particular, has good lateral agility. If he can find another gear in his stride, he could become borderline impossible to defend against.
The tools are there for Geekie to become a bona fide All-Star, but even a more modest development arc still places him as a top-six NHL center.
9. Juraj Slafkovsky, Left Wing, TPS (Liiga)
The appeal of Juraj Slafkovsky is fairly easy to summarize: He's 6'4", 225 pounds and possesses unbelievable hands. He's a beast along the walls, using both his stick and body to win battles and protect the puck before either starting a cycle or curling across into the slot for a dangerous play. Slafkovsky is an excellent puck-handler who, despite his size, can make plays in small spaces or by pulling the puck tight to his body in open ice. He'll make defenders miss in open ice, and his shot is strong.
Slafkovsky hasn't produced much in Liiga so far—just one assist in eight games—but he's holding his own in a tough league, and his draft stock is buttressed by dominant performances at the junior level. He produced nine points in five games at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup earlier this season, and he'll be a prominent member of Slovakia's World Junior team in December despite being only 17. The tools are already there for Slafkovsky to become a very good top-six winger in the NHL, but if he can improve his skating from an average rating to something more, then he could be a massive weapon one day.
10. Logan Cooley, Center, USA National Team Development Program (USHL)
The 2004-born class of USNTDP players has been hyped up for a long time, which makes it all the more impressive that Logan Cooley has unexpectedly risen to the top over the past year.
He was a point-per-game player for the U18 team last season and was one of the surprises of the 2021 World Junior Summer Showcase, scoring three goals in three games. Cooley plays center but could be easily confused for a winger. He's a quick skater who changes gears to unsettle defenseman. Despite being a left-handed shot, he loves carrying the puck down the right wing and will beat defenseman wide on his backhand. Because he is adept at shooting across his body, he can beat goaltenders on the rush from his off-side.
His height (5'10") and tendencies to carry wide may lead to questions about whether his future is at center, but Cooley is a talented offensive forward who creates his own shooting opportunities. The margins between him and some of the other top Americans in this draft are razor-thin, and the competition to be the first one selected will be a storyline to follow all season long. Right now, Cooley is slightly ahead of the pack.
11. Frank Nazar, Center, USA National Team Development Program (USHL)
There isn't anything to dislike in Frank Nazar's game. He is equal parts scorer and passer, with a quick wrist shot that can elevate the puck from close range and the kind of vision that allows him to either quickly strike or delay the extra split second it takes to find a lane to open up for a teammate. He's an above-average skater who works hard to get back on defense and puts in a diligent effort to keep his man out of the play.
But what stands out most is how comfortable he is doing everything from the middle of the ice. There are players who appear creative and talented when given time and space along the walls but who crumble when vulnerable and defended against tightly in the middle of the neutral zone or slot. His ability to operate in that space is the key to unlocking his potential, as it not only makes him a threat but also creates space and opportunity for everyone else on the ice.
For now, Nazar projects as a good second-line center who plays in all situations and helps his head coach sleep easy at night.
12. Isaac Howard, Left Wing, USA National Team Development Program (USHL)
Isaac Howard is an interesting one to try to figure out. The video suggests there's a gifted player there in terms of offensive abilities. An ultra-creative winger who can make passes of high-degree difficulty, he has the hands to punish opposing teams in all sorts of ways. He has a keen eye for finding his way into scoring areas and implements a quick release around the net.
Despite his 5'10" frame, he's sturdy and scores the majority of his goals around the low-slot area. Visually, he's a good player, but he's not overly effective on the defensive side, and other teammates stand out more.
Yet his statistical profile suggests he's on a whole different level. His 27 goals and 27 assists in just 34 games for the U.S. U17 team last season made him the team's top producer by a wide margin. In fact, by points per game, he ranks 10th all time. That's above quality offensive NHLers such as J.T. Miller and Clayton Keller. The tape implies top-six forward potential, but the numbers indicate future All-Star. How Howard performs against higher levels of competition this season will be telling.
13. Rutger McGroarty, Center/Left Wing, USA National Team Development Program (USHL)
Rutger McGroarty's 2020-21 season started off incredibly hot, with 11 goals in 17 games. Then he suffered a setback, missed two weeks and never recovered, scoring just once in his final 13 outings. It's not a perfect statistical measure, as he bounced between the U17 and U18 teams, but the trends were radical enough to leave a lot of questions.
Like many of his teammates in this draft range, McGroarty is a skilled forward. His defining trait is his shooting ability. He has a wicked wrist shot with a quick release that seems to find its way right under the crossbar both from in tight and from distance. He's a creative passer who will make quick touch plays to teammates in the neutral zone to create rush opportunities.
McGroarty is also an above-average skater, and at 6'0" and 205 pounds he won't produce any worries about his ability to withstand NHL strength. The USNTDP's overload at center creates a dilemma for him to find ice time at the position, but he may be better suited for the wing regardless.
This season is important for any draft-eligible player, but McGroarty in particular will be watched closely by scouts. He has the skill to push his way into the top 10, but following last season's mixed bag, the onus is on him to force his way there.
14. Seamus Casey, Right Defense, USA National Team Development Program (USHL)
Seamus Casey has drawn comparisons to Quinn Hughes, though it needs to be stressed that this is a loose stylistic frame of reference and that it's unrealistic to expect Casey to become quite as good as the Vancouver Canucks blueliner.
What stands out about Casey's game is his ability to escape pressure with his feet. He'll gather the puck in the defensive zone and effortlessly find his way out of a maze of opponents. He makes strong first passes out of the defensive end and often surpasses layers of forecheckers to find forwards at the opposing blue line.
In the offensive zone, he walks the blue line to similarly escape pressure. His quick feet allow him to keep pucks in the zone offensively and close gaps defensively. His 5'10" frame will lead to moderate concerns about his ability to defend in his own end during physical battles, but Casey has the instincts and mobility to become a top-four puck-moving defenseman
15. Tristan Luneau, Right Defense, Gatineau Olympiques (QMJHL)
Last season's QMJHL Defensive Rookie of the Year, Tristan Luneau's prominent role for Gatineau last season was the type usually reserved for more veteran players, averaging almost 22 minutes, per In Stat. The right-shot defenseman stands at 6'2" and, relative to size, is one of the best skaters in this draft class. He moves in all four directions with ease. His lateral agility is high-end thanks to quick crossovers, and he is able to get moving in a hurry from stationary positions.
As a puck-carrier, he usually has no trouble evading the first forechecker. He finds openings to skate the puck into the neutral zone but also has a knack for finding outlets. In the offensive zone, he activates frequently, using his quick first step to be first to pucks along the walls and keeps plays alive. He's also a poised playmaker from the point.
What may hold back Luneau from becoming a major offensive producer and power-play quarterback in the NHL is his mediocre shooting ability, but otherwise, there's a lot to like. Luneau has the potential to become a top-four defenseman who collects 25-30 points per season and drives possession for his team.
16. Elias Salomonsson, Right Defense, Skelleftea (SHL)
In some ways, Elias Salomonsson blends in as one of the many puck-moving right-handed defensemen in this draft. He's a solid 6'1" and skates fluidly. He doesn't need much runway to turn corners, and once he's going, he can fly through the neutral zone without needing many strides.
But Salomonsson does stand out. He might be the best stretch-passer of the group, effortlessly launching pucks down and across the wide European ice and hitting teammates on their blades. In particular, he is extremely confident sending long backhand passes, which is unusual for a defenseman.
He likes to join the rush, and on controlled possessions in the offensive zone he's always looking to get lost on the far side and push up to the faceoff dot. Defensively, he eats up space quickly and shuts down plays in the neutral zone. He does have a propensity for making bad decisions when defending in the defensive zone, but that skill could come with more experience.
And there's this: Salomonsson is one of the youngest players in the draft, yet he's already earned some cameos in the Swedish Hockey League. There is reason to believe he has more room to grow, both literally and metaphorically. There's a lot of upside here, and he's a threat to push his way into the top 10.
17. David Jiricek, Right Defense, HC Plzen (Tipsport Extraliga)
David Jiricek is a staunch defender in his own end. He's 6'3" and 176 pounds and skates well, which explains why he's not only capable of playing pro hockey as a 17-year-old but is also able to eat up a lot of minutes for Plzen. He's not all brawn, though. He's an intelligent defender who knows how to aggressively take away space without getting caught. He makes smart reads in the defensive zone and uses his long reach to step into lanes at the right moments and pick off passes.
The best way to describe his offensive game is comfortable. He's not going to split two defenders with moves, but he's confident carrying the puck north and makes good outlet passes. In the offensive zone, he's not going to quarterback play, but he doesn't shy away from holding the puck at the blue line and making plays. He also has a booming slap shot he uses to score his share of goals.
Jiricek is one of the oldest and most physically mature players in this draft class, which means he has less work to do in order to reach the NHL. The tradeoff is a potentially lower ceiling on his upside.
18. Ryan Chesley, Right Defense, USA National Team Development Program (USHL)
Ryan Chesley is a well-rounded defenseman with no glaring weaknesses. He's a confident transporter of the puck who makes clean outlet passes from the defensive end and joins the rush. He's a strong skater who will eat up space in the neutral zone and is a reliable defender in his own end who does a commendable job of retrieving pucks behind the goal line and winning battles.
There are some who rate Chesley as the top American defenseman in the draft. However, not only is the aforementioned Casey ahead of his peers, but it's also not close right now. Chesley has not displayed an extraordinary ability to make the plays that Casey has, and it's hard to see where he closes that gap anywhere else.
That's not to take anything away from Chesley, though. He has upside as a good second-pairing defenseman who eats minutes and contributes secondary offense. That's a player any team loves to have—particularly on the right side.
19. Simon Forsmark, Left Defense, Orebro (SHL)
The arrows are pointing upward for Simon Forsmark, one of the biggest risers early into the 2021-22 season. He had a solid showing last spring at the U18 World Championship, and this season, he lit up Sweden's J20 league with three goals and 14 assists through 14 games, basically forcing Orebro to call him up to the Swedish Hockey League.
Born in October of 2003, Forsmark is one of the oldest players eligible for the 2022 draft, so that has to be considered. Much of his game reflects that maturity, as he's 6'2" and already a robust 194 pounds. He uses a long stick with which he breaks up a lot of plays. He's confident carrying the puck forward through the neutral zone but, perhaps in part because of his reach, lacks much east-west mobility when in possession.
He boasts a fairly good slap shot from the point and makes heady plays in the offensive zone, though he's not exactly a quarterback. Forsmark has emerged from the periphery and is staunchly a first-round pick, with room to rise if he maintains this level of play.
20. Filip Mesar, Left Wing, HK Poprad (Tipos Extraliga)
Filip Mesar is a dynamic skater who is extremely light on his feet. He can get up the ice in a hurry and change directions seamlessly. Combined with the ability to stick-handle close to his body, Mesar is a zone-entry machine.
In the offensive zone he stands out as a playmaker. He'll find teammates off the rush and can make the cross-seam passes from the walls on controlled possessions. Skepticism regarding his ability to score could be what holds him outside the top 20 picks in this draft, but he looks every part of a surefire first-rounder at this point in the season.
If he can continue to produce credible goal-scoring numbers in Slovakia—he has three goals in seven games to date—then he could be a quick riser up every team's draft list.
21. Noah Ostlund, Center, Djurgardens J20 (J20 Nationell)
The term "energy" in hockey typically applies to players who utilize a physical brand of hockey. That's not the case for Ostlund, though he absolutely qualifies. He's more in the mold of a gnat who persistently hovers around your face no matter how many times you try to swat it away. His feet are always moving on the ice, and he's constantly trying to find a way to get near the puck and influence play.
Ostlund is primarily a playmaker. He's light on his feet and can stop on a dime, looking to use quick pivots and head fakes to disorient pressuring defenders and open up passing lanes. He has 15 points in 13 games this season, and although only two are goals, his track record suggests he has goal scoring potential.
Ostlund's development will be a slow burn as it will take time for his 5'10", 166-pound frame to catch up to pro-level strength, but he has a lot of tools and the right mentality to become a middle-six NHL center who never takes a shift off.
22. Marco Kasper, Center/Left Wing, Rogle (SHL)
The Austrian Forward moved to Sweden last season and has quickly risen up the ranks. He started by splitting time between the J20 and J18 leagues before earning a few SHL games. He's earned a more serious look in the top league this season for Rogle and it's hard to see him getting demoted anything soon. Kasper has three goals and an assist in eight SHL Games as well as a stunning six points in six Champions League games.
Kasper keeps his feet moving in the offensive zone, works hard on the cycle, and has a nose for the net. He's scored multiple ugly goals this season by forcing his way into the crease area, taking punishment along the way. Admittedly, his place in these rankings is based more on his statistical profile than any viewings. Continued chances to see him play at the SHL level will offer a more precise understanding of where he belongs in the pecking order.
23. Ludwig Persson, Left Wing, Frolunda J20 (J20 Nationell)
Persson has been in focus for multiple years now, although his stock has plateaued to a degree. He's a winger with tremendous speed, as he has a quick first couple of steps and can accelerate past defenders.
He's adept at carrying the puck in straight lines and will beat goaltenders off the rush with a quick flick of his wrists, though he is primarily a playmaker. He made his SHL debut two years ago as a 16-year-old for the vaunted Frolunda and has gotten more action over the last two seasons as well. He has 17 points through 12 J20 games so far this season and should feature semi-regularly for Frolunda in the SHL.
24. Denton Mateychuk, Left Defense, Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL)
What Mateychuk lacks in flash he makes up for in efficiency. He's not going to blow your mind on a nightly basis, but he does so many of the little things well. He plays a tight gap when defending rushes and shows a willingness to break plays up both with his stick and body. He's quick skating with the puck from the back-end and is a high-caliber playmaker from the point on offense.
Mateychuk is outshone by others with more physical tools in this defense-heavy draft, but he's a reliable two-way defenseman who could be the type of depth minute-eater on the second or third pairing who turns a playoff team into a contender.
25. Nathan Gaucher, Center, Quebec Remparts (QMJHL)
In many ways, Gaucher fits the mold of a traditional center. He's 6'3" and 188 pounds, proficient on faceoffs, and knows his way around the net front. The puck seems to find its way on his stick almost serendipitously around the crease, yet it happens so frequently that it can't possibly be luck. He also has a good enough release to beat goaltenders from farther out. He's comfortable, even if not exemplary when carrying the puck up the ice.
He has the size, strength, and scoring ability. He was a point-per-game player in the QMJHL last season and has picked up where he left off, with seven points through seven games this season. Gaucher looks to be one of the safest prospects in this draft outside the top-10, though his physical maturity and 2003 birthyear are reasons to wonder whether he might have less room for improvement.
26. Ty Nelson, Right Defense, North Bay Battalion (OHL)
Nelson is an interesting player to try to come to terms with. He's listed generously at 5'10", yet at 197 pounds, he has more meat on him than many players with five inches on him. He's an offensive defenseman with a determined mentality. He's brave with the puck, always looking to send it towards the net, and his strength is manifested in what is a heavy point shot.
Like many offensive defensemen his age, he sometimes falls into the trap of trying to do too much, but he should adjust with time. Because the OHL's entire season was canceled in 2020-21, Nelson is a bit of an enigma, and it's easy to see him drastically rising up or falling down the rankings depending on his output this season. He's started well early with a goal and three assists in five games.
27. Jonathan Lekkerimaki, Right Wing, Djurgardens J20 (J20 Nationell)
Noah Ostlund's teammate at both Djurgardens and internationally with Sweden, Lekkerimaki is close to the ideal complementary player, as he serves as the finisher when the two are on the ice. The winger is absolutely on fire so far this season, which began with five goals in five games at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and has continued with 12 goals in 13 J20 games.
Lekkerimaki scores a variety of goals. He is one of the best one-touch shooters in the draft, able to quickly catch and release from passing plays. He's the trigger man on power plays from the left faceoff circle. Even if time is not on his side, he still has the ability to beat goaltenders cleanly with velocity. He's also a respectable finisher close to the net and has enough poise to sometimes wait for the goaltender to make the first move and then make him pay. Lekkerimaki isn't a complete player, but the objective in hockey is to score goals, and he does that.
28. Cutter Gauthier, Left Wing, US National Development Program (USHL)
This year's crop of Americans features a number of complex forwards. Gauthier, in comparison, is comfort food. He's 6'3" and 189 pounds, and his wrist shot is heavy.
There's enough playmaking ability in his arsenal to keep the opposition honest, but Gauthier is fairly easy to project as a future power forward with 20-goal upside in the NHL. The somewhat limited nature of his game hurts his stock compared to the top US forwards, but whatever team drafts him will have a clear idea of what it's getting.
29. Jiri Kulich, Left Wing, HC Karlovy Vary (Tipsport Extraliga)
This is my most ambitious player ranking, but I'm a bit baffled as to why Kulich is not receiving more credit as a first-round candidate. He had a so-so U18 World Championship showing last spring but was a top player for the Czech Republic at the past Hlinka Gretzky tournament and is now thriving against men in the Czech men's league.
His five goals in 14 games puts him on pace to shatter the scoring production of NHLers like Martin Necas and Filip Chytil at the same age. And he doesn't turn 18 until mid-April.
Perhaps his game isn't as multi-faceted as the aforementioned Czech players, but Kulich has a heavy wrist shot and the creativity to beat defenders one-on-one. He'll need to continue to play at this high level to maintain a first-round ranking, but in my view, he's absolutely in the discussion.
30. Ruslan Gazizov, Forward, London Knights (OHL)
There's danger in overhyping a prospect's performance in short international tournaments, but it's impossible to ignore what Gazizov accomplished at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup to start the season.
The Russian forward finished third in the tournament with 10 points (three goals, seven assists) as he played an integral role in his country's gold-medal win. And while he certainly benefited from playing with the likes of Miroshnichenko and 2023 generational prospect Matvei Michkov, he was hardly a passenger.
Gazizov has some of the best hands in the draft. His ability to stickhandle in a phonebooth, hold the puck for extended stretches even while under pressure and find passing lanes in the smallest of openings all make him a dynamic playmaker who can reliably quarterback play for his team in the offensive zone. The rest of his game will have to come along, but the offensive tools are undoubtedly first-round caliber. He's waiting on a visa before joining the London Knights in the OHL.
31. Lane Hutson, Left Defense, U.S. National Development Program (USHL)
A good sign for a prospect is when he stands out in games even when he's not the primary interest. At the U18 World Championship last season, NHL scouts were heavily focused on the 2021 draft eligibles. Particularly those who had played few if any games during the COVID-19-hampered season.
Yet Lane Hutson forced his way into the conversation as one of the surprises of the tournament with five assists in five games. Hutson is a confident puckhandler who dices through the neutral zone. He's a proficient passer in the offensive end, although shooting isn't his forte.
There are fair concerns about what his 5'7" frame means for his ability to defend, but he shows some tendencies that suggest he may be able to overcome that, such as puck retrieval skills that allow him to avoid contact and board battles. Another issue for him is that, with Casey and Chesley on the U.S. roster, his opportunities in offensive situations might be somewhat limited this season.
32. Antonin Verreault, Left Wing, Gatineau Olympiques (QMJHL)
The word to describe Verreault is "elusive." At 5'8" and 163 pounds, he's not going to survive intense contact, and he deals with that by avoiding it altogether.
He's shifty with the puck on his stick and, when it seems like he's cornered by the opposition, he manages to find his way out unscathed. Verreault is a brilliant playmaker who led Gatineau in assists last season.
There are a lot of fair questions about his game, such as whether he can become more influential in the middle of the ice, whether he can add more goal scoring to his repertoire beyond stickhandling past goaltenders, and if he can truly sustain high levels of performance at his size as he moves to pro hockey. For now, he'll get the benefit of the doubt as a borderline first-round talent based on an offensive skill set that's hard to duplicate.